by Judy Heyer
Sorrel, or spinach dock, is a favorite perennial herb in Europe that's just waiting to be 'discovered' in our North American gardens. This herb has been around for centuries, and is highly valued for both its medicinal and culinary uses.
In 1720 the diarist and salad-lover, John Evelyn, wrote that "Sorrel sharpens the appetite" and that it imparts "so grateful a quickness to the salad that it should never be left out." John Evelyn obviously knew his greens. This potherb can be used as a spring tonic, and has astringent properties that cleanse the blood. Like spinach, the leaves are high in oxalic acid.
The flavour of sorrel is memorable - a bite into a tangy leaf transports me back to the time when I was a child, happily munching my way through my grandparents' garden. Sorrel has a mildly sour flavour - one you're not likely to forget. It's taste will add a 'zing' to any salad.
Sorrel is a close relative of dock, and has similar large, arrow-shaped leaves. It is one of those reliable herbs that once established, will supply you generously with greens from very early spring to late fall - a real 'cut and come again' crop. This hardy herb can even withstand freezing prairie winters. Once established, the plant should produce greens for 8 - 10 years - not a bad investment!
Sorrel produces best in a rich soil, but will grow in any well-drained soil, and can be planted in sun or partial shade. Prepare the bed by digging in generous amounts of aged manure or compost. An occasional side dressing of compost is all that is required during the growing season. The plants should be kept moist, so water well during dry summer months.
Plants can be purchased from a garden centre or started from seed. If you know someone with an established sorrel plant, ask for a small cutting.
Seeds should be sown in early spring by planting them 1/4 - 1/2" deep, and six inches apart. When the plants are several inches high, thin the seedlings to 8'-12" apart. The plants will grow into fairly sizable clumps, anywhere from 16" - 24" high, and will produce tangy, edible leaves approximately four months after thinning. Remove the rust red flowers when they appear in summer by cutting the flowering stem, or the plant will put its energy into seed, not leaf, production.
When the plant is established, it's easy to propagate by using a sharp knife to cut small sections from the main root. These sections should be planted a foot apart and watered in well.
Once the plant has matured, it can be treated as a 'cut and come again' crop. The young tender leaves have a fresh, palate cleansing taste and make a delicious addition to a salad; mature leaves can be pureed to make green sauce for fish, French Cream of Sorrel soup, or a variety of Russian borscht. The leaves may also be used in omelets and other egg dishes, or as a meat tenderizer. Tough, outer leaves can fed to rabbits and poultry, or tossed into the compost bin.
To harvest the plant, simply pinch or cut the leaves off with a knife. Harvesting can be done throughout the growing season. Leaves are held erect on a sturdy stem, so they don't get gritty, like spinach. When picking the leaves, remember the smallest leaves are the most concentrated in flavour.
To keep my sorrel patch producing at peak capacity, I start new plants from section cuttings every few years. That's all the work there is to growing sorrel. It's basically disease and insect free - aphids may show an interest in the young leaves. These can be removed with a sharp spray of water. Even slugs rarely bother this potherb. It's a great plant for the organic gardener.
To quote John Evelyn again: "...in the making of sallets (sorrel) imparts a grateful quickness to the rest as supplying the want of oranges and lemons. Together with salt, it gives both the name and the relish to sallets from the sapidity, which renders not plants and herbs only, but men themselves pleasant and agreeable." High words of praise from a man who obviously knew his sallets!